Trump’s pardon of US mercenaries inexcusable - GulfToday

Trump’s pardon of US mercenaries inexcusable

Michael Jansen

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Zalmay Khalilzad

2005: US Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad, wearing a flak jacket and surrounded by bodyguards from the US security firm Blackwater, leaves the Civil and Military Operation Centre in Fallujah. File/Agence France-Presse

Donald Trump has used his presidential powers to pardon cronies, crooks, liars and murderers rather than to right injustices, which was the purpose of the pardon. The most damaging of these pardons were of the four heavily armed mercenaries who used sniper rifles, machine guns and grenades to kill 14 Iraqis, including two children, at Nisour Square in Baghdad on September 16th, 2007. The men were sentenced to long prison sentences after repeat battles through US courts. At the time of the massacre Blackwater and other military contractors had dispatched 160,000 mercenaries to Iraq, about the same number deployed by the US regular army.

US army veterans, the four mercenaries were escorting a convoy of US vehicles through the Iraqi capital when they fired indiscriminately at civilians at a busy traffic circle. Dustin Heard, Evan Liberty, and Paul slough were convicted of manslaughter and attempted manslaughter and given long sentences while Nicholas Slatten, who initiated the killing spree, was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life imprisonment.

A federal judge dismissed initial charges but then Vice President Joe Biden pursued the case and secured in the convictions in 2015.

Trump’s action is particularly damaging because it undermines the authority of the US military command which has to compel both troops and “contract” mercenaries to abide by the restraints imposed by the rules of engagement whether deployed at home or abroad. Soldiers may now feel they can do whatever they wish without fear of being held accountable by their own government. This means that many countries will think twice about allowing the deployment of US troops on their soil and agreeing to the US condition that they must not face local prosecution for wrongdoing. This rule has, for example, created deep antagonism in Okinawa, Japan, where US forces have been based since the end of World War II. The people of Okinawa have repeatedly called for the withdrawal of US forces and bases from their island —  to no avail.

Trump took his decision primarily to cosy up to conservatives who have been lobbying for the men’s release. He is desperate to shore up his “base” before leaving office on January 20th and to keep his followers in play. He intends to remain a permanent fixture on the US and global political scene over the next four years and make a second bid for the US presidency.

The Nisour Square four are not alone in receiving pardons from Trump. In November last year, he pardoned three US soldiers who had been accused or convicted of war crimes, including a former army lieutenant imprisoned for murder after ordering his men to fire on three unarmed Afghans. The pardons amount to a licence to kill with impunity.

Trump also sought to deny Biden, in the days before his inauguration, a personal success for his work on the Obama administration’s Iraq file. Biden has been called upon to reverse the pardons by Iraqi officials and citizens, human rights organisations, and former high ranking US military officers who fear Iraqis could wreak revenge on US troops remaining in their country.

It is significant that the Nisour Square massacre took place two months and four days after US troops in two Apache helicopters opened cannon fire on Iraqis, including at least two armed men, two Reuters journalists, and unarmed civilians in New Baghdad, killing between 12-18 Iraqis and wounding many more. They conducted three strikes and ended by firing Hellfire missiles into a building where people had taken shelter, slaying several residents.

In early 2010 Wikileaks released video gunsight footage from the incident under the title “Collateral Murder.” This created an uproar about the actions of US troops in Iraq. Although they were facing an insurgency, they did not have leeway to attack civilians and “civilan objects” under the laws of war.

Blackwater had a grudge against Iraqis resisting the US occupation going back to March 31st, 2004, when gunmen ambushed and killed four mercenaries. Their bodies were beaten and burnt and hanged from a bridge crossing the Euphrates river at Fallujah, which was at the time under rebel control.

In response, the US military conducted two operations against Fallujah, destroying large areas of the city, killing and wounding Iraqi townspeople and driving them from their homes. This was a particularly brutal offensive which enraged many Iraqis as the 1920 Iraqi revolt against British occupation was centred on Fallujah, which became an icon of resistance to foreign rule.

Following the US-led invasion, Fallujah again assumed this role by refusing to submit to the US diktat and protesting the occuation. In April 2003, US soldiers fired into an unarmed crowd, killing 17 and wounding 70, outside a local school which had been taken over by the US army. While the soldiers said they were responding to hostile fire from the Iraqis, Human Rights Watch, which investigated the scene, reported there was no evidence confirming this claim. Two days later, three Iraqis were slain during a demonstration outside Fallujah’s Baath party headquarters and the mayor’s office. The resistance replied with attacks on US bases which killed and wounded US troops.

They should not have been in Iraq in the first place. George W. Bush waged a war on that country without provocation after falsely accusing President Saddam Hussein of possessing an arsenal of weapons of mass destruction and having a role in al-Qaeda’s September 2001 attacks on New York and Washington. This was a straightforward war of aggression which not only ousted Saddam Hussein but also opened the country to infiltration by Al Qaeda end resulted in the installation by the US of a sectarian regime dominated by pro-Iranian Shia fundamentalists. They quite happily rode into Baghdad on “the backs of US tanks,” deeply resentful Iraqi friends used to say.

Although military contractors were initially used in the Balkans during the presidency of Bill Clinton in the mid-90s, their presence on US battlefields ballooned during the US invasions of Afghanistan in 2001 and of Iraq in 2003. Their involvement in foreign US military adventures multiplies the number of boots on the ground while keeping US regular troop deployments at acceptable levels. The second Bush administration relied increasingly heavily on contractors as the situation in Iraq, in particular, grew precarious. However, abuses of Iraqis by mercenaries created controversy in the US. They can be hired in host countries or outside the US. They are paid less than US soldiers and do not require pensions, social security and other long-term support. Therefore, it is argued they are cheaper. Furthermore, the US does not report the deaths of mercenaries and the US public does not care about casualties and fatalities among non-US hires. The Nisour Square four, former US servicemen, are an exception who caught Trump’s attention and prompted his self-interested intervention.

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